The University of Illinois Board of Trustees this week voted unanimously to deny “emeritus” status to Bill Ayers, who just retired from the institution. But the decision appears to violate the University of Illinois' policies and the First Amendment protections of free speech.
Trustee Christopher Kennedy declared, “I intend to vote against conferring the honorific title of our university whose body of work includes a book dedicated in part to the man who murdered my father, Robert F. Kennedy.”
Kennedy is certainly correct to condemn Ayers for bizarrely including Sirhan Sirhan among a list of “political prisoners” listed in the dedication of a 1974 book Ayers co-wrote as part of the Weather Underground. But if that was the basis of the denial of Ayers' emeritus status, then it is clearly wrong and unconstitutional. The University of Illinois requires merit to be the basis of emeritus status. And the First Amendment prohibits using political criteria for employment decisions at public colleges. Using a book dedication written years before Ayers became a professor cannot possibly be a judgment of his performance at UIC. This is the first time in memory that the Board of Trustees has ever rejected an “emeritus” appointment, and the role of politics in the decision is unmistakeable.
As UIC professor Barbara Ransby noted, "It is a real threat to academic freedom, and the foundation of a democratic university, when we begin to make professional and institutional decisions based on personal or political sentiments, however strongly felt they may be."
There's another problem with the vote by the Board of Trustees. It appears to violate the University's policy. According to the University of Illinois policy, "Recommendations for emeritus/emerita designation must be made by the employing department with the approval of the appropriate college dean, the chancellor and the president."
The Board of Trustees does not have any authority to grant or remove emeritus status. A footnote in the policy seems to confirm this by identifying the only case where the Board is involved in emeritus status: "The president of the University is an exception. Approval for a president's emeritus/emerita status is granted by the Board of Trustees."
The UIC faculty handbook does give the Board of Trustees the final authority. But the university-wide policy would be superior to what's listed in a campus handbook. (University of Illinois officials did not respond yet to my request to clarify what the emeritus policy is.)
However, the technically illegal actions of the University of Illinois trustees in violating their own emeritus policy are secondary to the fact that a politically biased motivation in this case violates the First Amendment.
To be honest, despite a lifetime spent around academia and many years studying it, I had no idea that “emeritus” was an honorific title bestowed by anyone. I always assumed it was a routine term used to describe any retired faculty. And that's the way it should be. There's no reason for the university to make involved decisions about who deserves or doesn't deserve a status that is ultimately symbolic.
But symbolism does matter sometimes. And in this case, the University of Illinois trustees are taking a symbolic stand against academic freedom, announcing their determination not to allow controversial figures to have any role at the University. And that's what makes the symbolism of this case alarming to anyone committed to intellectual freedom.
Crossposted at DailyKos.